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Bill Bramwell - An appreciation

Without the humble stoker the admiral could not sail his ship, and without their musicians a star could not perform. Many session musicians have been unfairly forgotten. One such colossus of the nineteen-fifties was the incomparable Bill Bramwell, bassist, banjo player, guitarist and raconteur par excellence.

Roger Bramwell was born on the 16th of July 1922 in Corwen, Merioneth, however at an early age he acquired the soubriquet ‘Bill’ and the name stuck, indeed he preferred it, as he would say, ‘Roger Bramwell? Would you? No thanks!’

Bill was conscripted into the RAF in 1942 and was immediately posted to Malta where he joined the Stations’ resident band. Upon demob he departed for London and briefly joined the Freddie Randall band, shortly after he decamped, for the first of a number of occasions to play with the Reg Wale Combo, in between times working with Carlo Krahmer the bandleader and soon to be founder of the fondly remembered and much lamented Jazz recording company ‘Esquire’.

In 1947 Bill was one of four instrumentalists who were to receive the accolade ‘Young Musicians of the Year’. The other three members of this august quartet were… Humphrey Lyttleton, Derek Franklin, later of the Hedley Ward Trio, and Roy Foxley, who went on to record with Ken Colyer and many 50’s Jazz outfits. In recognition of his success on the 24th of January 1948, Bill alongside the bassist Bernie Woods became the first of many domestic Jazzmen to be recorded by Karlo Krahmer, playing and singing the old Jazzer ‘My Old Man’… ironically the recording was not released until a decade later.

Late in 1948 he was to leave for Cape Town for an eighteen-month residency… he returned to the UK in 1950 and was to rejoin Reg Wale’s band. Bill had a low boredom threshold and in 1951 he joined a cruise ship, travelling extensively and bizarrely for a fleeting period he was employed as a disc jockey in Honolulu. It was whilst in Honolulu he became interested in psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism. Upon his homecoming (1953) he would attend a number of psychoanalysis sessions. At great length Bill would with mounting absurdity recount that during his time on the couch his psychotherapist would feverishly knit.

Bill was short, rotund, bald and bespectacled; indeed he resembled everyone’s idea of a bank manager or stockbroker. His great charm lay betwixt the juxtaposition of his appearance and his true character; he could reduce his audience to hooting wrecks, laughing until it was too painful to bear any longer. During his time with Mick Mulligan he was nicknamed ‘Bumble Bee Fat’ - in honour of the Blues singer Bumble Bee Slim. Bill married Jenifer a dancer and the daughter of a minor Devon notable and in 1956 and set up home in Hampstead.

In 1957 Bill was to join Chas McDevitt and with Chas he re-recorded ‘My Old Man’ for Oriole Records, (CB 1395) perhaps as a spoiler Karlo Krahmer finally issued his 1948 recording of the same tune (Starlite Records ST 45 004) As a direct result neither recording received the attention it deserved.

1958 and Bill was off again, this time to Mick Mulligan and his Magnolia Jazz Band, where he stayed for 18 months, recording a number of sessions with Parlophone and Pye Records, where he recorded several songs with the band… notably on the LP’s ‘Meet George Melly’ (Pye - NSPL 18424) and ‘the Saints meet the Sinners’ (Parlophone – PMC 1103)

After his sojourn with Mick, Bill was offered a job in the musical side of advertising. He composed a number of highly regarded jingles… some of which were recorded by George Melly. Bill continued to record and occasionally tour, becoming for a time house guitarist with Oriole and sporadically recording with Mick Mulligan. Come 1960 and Bill was to achieve a place in the UK Record Charts… with his Decca recording of the ‘Candid Camera’ theme. During the sixties he concentrated on composing and produced the soundtracks for a number of short films, notably the greatly praised 1965 short ‘Jemima and Johnny’ a film, which tackled the then taboo subject of racial discrimination.

Bill’s guitar style is difficult to describe, his chord work was pithy and punchy in the manner of Django Reinhardt and his single string work is similarly inventive and incisive. His light tenor voice was extraordinary, his richly creative scat singing perfectly complimenting his swinging guitar.

Bill was good, Bill was a superb, highly underrated session man, his greatest predicament was that he knew he was good… and he would tell you. He would come off stage stating ‘I was good tonight, bloody good’ … even on the occasion when he had not played to his usual lofty standards. Bill’s problem? He was an irredeemable and incorrigible alcoholic. And it was to become his downfall.

For on the 13th September 1968, at the early age of 46 at his Hampstead home Bill Bramwell was to die of a stroke.

I never met Bill, I only know him through recordings and the stories of musicians… even given his many faults, and there were many, above all his humanity shone through… he may have annoyed and infuriated many, but in the end they all forgave him. All remember Bill with deep affection and respect.

Bill never legally changed his name and he was interred under his birth name, Roger.

‘Owning Up’ George Melly.
‘Skiffle’ Chas McDevitt
A legion of old Jazzers whose tales had me transfixed.

Alex Balmforth, August 2006

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